“Me and you: last one round that yellow buoy and back to the beach buys the beers!” Racing, how it should be... Mark and his mate Blazej Ozog in Egypt PHOTO: Robert Hajduk / Shuttersail

Regardless of the gear you’re riding, racing against your mates is fantastic fun, says Mark Shinn in his 83rd Kiteworld column. Why is there not more provision for it when sailing has proved over many decades that it’s surely been the key to a long and healthy survival, he asks?

I’m not a big believer in fate but sometimes it does appear that things work out beautifully well (or woefully badly!). Since I first started kiteboarding in 1999 I don’t think a single month has gone by without some sort of international travels being made. In fact, a normal month for me has two or three trips, minimum. As with pretty much the whole world, my 2020 plans have been widely disrupted and it could have led to disaster. When I chose to live in southern Poland it was safe in the knowledge that there are two international airports within a 45 minute drive of my home and that between them they offer inexpensive flights to most places I tend to visit in the northern hemisphere. There has to be some kind of alignment of the stars that led to the one year where international travel was problematic, most of northern Europe also had a season with far better than average conditions. Every time I open Windguru there seems to be another weather system heading our way and my poor van has logged more than 35,000 kilometres in four months from chasing down forecasts. As a rider I have pretty wide ranging tastes; I like to boost, I like to foil, I like to ride a wave, I like to mess around with strapless freestyle and recently I’m not averse to a little wing action. One of the benefits of chasing down forecasts in the van (rather than a plane) is the ability to take the full selection of toys with me on every trip. I don’t remember a year where I rode such a huge variety of disciplines throughout the summer. One of my recent trips was to a racing event. Poland has a fiercely competitive and well-organized youth development squad with plenty of events to choose from. Let me start by saying: racing is FUN! Forget the Olympics, forget full carbon foils, forget hugely expensive high performance race kites – the two things that we nearly all enjoy about kiteboarding with our mates is trying to boost higher (thank you WOO for making that competitive and quantifiable) and attempting to ride faster than them. There is nothing better than a race to put those ‘I was faster’ claims to bed.

That’s the good side. Now the bad. Since foil racing was selected as an Olympic sport for Paris 2024 the sport has gone into hyperdrive. The gear is amazingly good but eye-wateringly expensive and the athletes are all on serious programs of training, diet and tactics etc. In the races I competed in at the event here in Poland, the average age of the competitors was 16, with riders as young as 13 in attendance. You might think that’s all good, but these riders are not in it for experience or just to finish races, they are already in it to win it and many of them have developed the core skills needed to do just that. They certainly all ride the latest and best gear to allow them to achieve their ambitions. I’m a competitive person, but in recent years I’ve learnt to control that side of my personality, however I can’t deny that the old ego took a beating as I followed these young riders round the course with my only realistic opportunity of getting ahead of them being if I could tactically make a better start. There were two other riders on freeride gear like me and it’s because of them that I make the declaration that racing is fun. We battled each other all weekend, no matter where we finished in the fleet. Overall we were engaged in our own personal racing with an interest only in which of us finished ahead of the other each time. I know I’ve said it before, but I really feel our sport is missing out in this regard. There are many sailing classes that use old designs and outdated boats (470 class anyone?), but it doesn’t matter because what’s fun is the racing itself, NOT the vessel used to race in.

“I know I’ve said it before, but I really feel our sport is missing out in this regard. There are many sailing classes that use old designs and outdated boats (470 class anyone?), but it doesn’t matter because what’s fun is the racing itself, NOT the vessel used to race in.”

Total commitment (physical, mental and financial) is needed to remain in contention in the very tight men’s and women’s fleets for the next four years, ahead of Paris 2024 Photos: Dominik Kalamus / IKA

Sailing boat races are mass participation events with a long and healthy future in front of them for exactly this reason. I do wonder what is going to happen with kite racing if we don’t start to address this right away – and by ‘this’ I mean the lack of a great ‘fun’ race class where the average kiter can turn up and enjoy racing without being scared away by the €15k price tag of competitive equipment and the even bigger concern of coming last in every race. The Formula Kite Europeans also took place in Poland in August (yes, a kite event that went ahead!). Around 120 riders competed and the fleets look strong and healthy, but we are still four years out from Paris 2024 and there are still a lot of riders' hopes and aspirations on the line. As the cycle develops the number of riders is more than likely going to decline as competitors find it all too hard; either realising that they don’t have the requisite level of skill, or simply lose interest with the commitment and dedication required to stay competitive. From my perspective there has to be something more to kite racing than just the Olympic class fleet and the burden to provide it lands pretty much exclusively at the feet of the IKA and national sailing associations. They are the governing bodies for kiteboard racing and their own mission statement reads, ‘To grow, evolve and promote all aspects of kiteboarding...’. Club racing, fun racing... call it what you will... might not be the sexiest side of our sport, but without it kiteboard racing is a summit without a mountain to stand on.

I don’t want to sound negative about Olympic racing – it is a truly insane sport and puts all other sailing classes in the shadow. The speeds, the range of conditions and the closeness of the racing is all breath-taking, not just for kiteboarders, but for the general public, too. The current short course format is easy to understand and extremely exciting to watch with the top four or five competitors often finishing a race within seconds of each other. Our inclusion into the Olympics is a fantastic opportunity to showcase what our sport is capable of and therefore attracting new participants – a vital element for the sport to further develop and evolve. However, now is the time to build foundations for the future, not pat ourselves on the back for what we have achieved so far…

Who needs international travel when Poland, where Mark lives, has been putting on a summer of fine events?! Here he is with his better half, Malwina, at the annual Summer Kite Festival on the Polish / German border – before the usual evening mayhem ensued...

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